A Mediterranean paradise

Date Posted: 08/06/2010

Lee Jamieson discovers the island charms of Malta.

Famous for its mild climate, hospitable people and rich culture, Malta is possibly the most diverse island in the Mediterranean. It is a melting pot of the many cultures and civilisations that have ruled this tiny island during its turbulent history. The Romans, the Byzantines, the Normans, the French and the Knights of Saint John - to name but a few of Malta’s past governors - have all left their mark.

Before Malta finally gained its independence in 1964, it had been a British colony for more than 150 years. Therefore, groups visiting from the UK will discover a strange mix of the familiar and the foreign. Red telephone boxes nestle beside Maltese architecture, English is an official language and everyone drives on the left-hand side of the road.

Thankfully, the British did not leave behind their weather. Malta is a year-round destination in every sense of the phrase; it enjoys hot, dry summers and mild winters. The blissful climate, crystal-clear waters and shallow reefs have turned Malta into a top diving destination, perfect for both beginners and experienced divers.

There are plenty of alternative water attractions for youngsters including the Splash and Fun Park offering an array of waterslides. There’s also the Mediterraneo Water Park with regular dolphin and sea lion shows throughout the day. Valletta, the capital of Malta, is a UNESCO World Heritage City where your group can explore grand architecture and colourful history.

Possibly Malta’s proudest moment was in 1564 when it managed to repel the invading Ottoman Empire against all odds. The bravery and heroism of the Maltese people during the Great Siege has become a dominant part of the island’s consciousness. The Great Siege Events Museum proudly recounts the story with life-sized mannequins, video and special effects through 23 scenes narrated by audio-guides.

For a less gruesome account, why not let your group enjoy a musical theatre version of the Great Siege, complete with a 50-strong cast and real horses. The Knights Spectacular 1565 Show is a two-hour, live dinner event that recreates the epic battle through spectacular special effects.

Travel ten kilometres west of Valletta and your group will come to Mdina, possibly Malta’s most beautiful city. Time has stood still for this fortified, hill-perched town making it the perfect place for a group sightseeing expedition.

Set the scene for your party by taking them to the Mdina Experience, another audio-visual history attraction that reveals the old capital city’s 3,000-year history. From there, your group can explore Mdina’s grand, Baroque architecture, numerous religious sites and take in some breathtaking views of the surrounding island, thanks to the city’s elevated position.

Mdina’s suburbs hide one of Malta’s most surprising religious attractions: Saint Agatha’s Catacombs. Sited under Malta’s oldest church is 4,100 square feet of catacombs decorated with Siculo-Byzantine and Graeco-Roman style frescos - the oldest on the island. Legend has it that Saint Agatha fled Sicily during the Christian persecution and took refuge in Malta, where she practiced Christianity from this secret underground Basilica.

For an altogether different type of experience, your group can follow in the footsteps of Hollywood film stars. Dubbed a ‘Mediterranean mini-Hollywood’ by The Times, Malta has a blossoming film industry. The natural beauty of its landscapes and untouched historical features has made the island the perfect backdrop for international blockbusters such as Troy, Gladiator and Munich. With this in mind, why not take your group to Anchor Bay where the Robin William’s film Popeye was shot. An entire village of wooden houses was built for the film and remain open to the general public. Many have been converted into shops, bars and tourist attractions.

Gozo

Often described as “Malta’s little sister”, the tiny island of Gozo offers quieter, more rural surroundings than the main island. It’s the perfect getaway - somewhere to shake off the hustle and bustle of Valletta and unwind.

For a little sister, Gozo has a big heart with many of Malta’s most remarkable sights packed into its 26 square miles. For example, your group can visit the Ggantija temple - the oldest freestanding structure in the world, pre-dating the Egyptian pyramids. Legend has it that the mammoth megaliths were constructed by giants (“Ggantija” is Maltese for “giant”).

Gozo’s crowning glory is undoubtedly the Santa Maria Cathedral in Victoria. This huge Baroque masterpiece dominated the citadel and protects the statue of Saint Mary within, which is embellished with diamonds and gold. Audio tours and a dedicated museum reveal the fascinating history of this cathedral.

Malta Essentials

Eat: Like everything else on the island, Malta’s cuisine has been influenced and shaped by the various visitors (and invaders!) to the island. Each culture has left its mark on the Maltese menu, creating a unique blend of north African, English, Italian and other Mediterranean flavours. The national dish is fenek - rabbit gently fried in garlic and wine. Another favourite is Bragoli, a hearty mixture of meat, bacon, eggs, onions and breadcrumbs wrapped in thin slices of steak. Gozo’s menus are much the same, but there are some regional variations. For example, an Italian inspired goat’s cheese pizza is often served on Gozo.

Drink: Most brand name beers, lagers and wines are available in Malta, along with a few home brewed delights. Groups should try the award-winning Maltese lager called CISK. Many of the traditional eateries also serve Maltese wine sourced from the island’s several vineyards.

Buy: Markets of note include the daily market in Valletta’s aptly named Merchant Street, Il-Monti Sunday Market outside Valletta’s city gate, and a daily market in Victoria’s main square, Gozo. In all the main tourist areas you will also find stalls and shops practicing Malta’s traditional crafts and selling products made from glass, wicker and lace. If your group would prefer modern shopping, leisure and entertainment outlets, then take them north of Valletta to Sliema and Saint Julian’s. There they can shop for the latest perfumes, fashions, music and DVD releases.

Go: Malta offers year-round sunshine and enjoys a temperate Mediterranean climate. Winters are mild with temperatures averaging 15 degrees celsius between November and April, but the sea is too cold for swimming during these months. Water sport related activities are best left to the summer months. Between May and October temperatures average a sublime 33 degrees celsius, but July and August can be uncomfortably hot with temperatures sometimes reaching over 35 degrees.

Top three sights in Malta

1. Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta: If Malta is synonymous with the Knights of Saint John, then this ornate cathedral is their shrine. The cathedral is the final resting place for many of Europe’s nobility including Valletta’s founder himself, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Vallette. In addition, art fans in your group will be pleased to learn that Saint John’s Co-Cathedral is home to the famous Caravaggio painting, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

2. Azure Window, Gozo: No trip to Malta would be complete without visiting the Azure Window on the Gozo coastline. This naturally formed archway epitomises Malta’s natural beauty and has become the island’s most famous landmark.

3. Grand Master’s Palace, Valletta: Built by the same architect responsible for Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, the palace serves as a reminder of the wealth and influence of the Order of the Knights of Saint John. Once the residence of the Knight’s Grand Master, the palace is now used by the Maltese president and parliament. The Palace may be closed if parliament is in session, so GTOs are advised to check with the tourist office in advance.

Factfile

Flight Time: 3 hours from the UK. Air Malta, easyJet, Ryanair and bmi baby all fly direct to Malta International Airport which is only 20 minutes from Valletta.

Time Difference: GMT + 1hr

Currency: Malta adopted the euro in 2008, replacing the Maltese Lira.

Language: Maltese and English are official languages. As an ex-British colony, English is widely spoken across the island, especially in the tourist and business areas. Many residents also speak Italian.

Red Tape: Entry visas are not required by anyone holding a British or EU passport.

Useful contact:

Malta Tourist Office:
020-8877 6990
www.visitmalta.com

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